The Bar should focus on “real inclusion” and “actionable, practical steps” to improve diversity rather than tick boxes, a black barrister and human rights activist has argued.
Karen Safo said regardless of the “steady increases” of black pupil barristers and QCs, “the real question is one of inclusion and belonging”.
Writing on the Bar Council website, she went on: “It is imperative that with the quantitative increases of black men and women at the Bar, there needs to be cultural shifts to ensure that black barristers and those aspiring to enter the profession can proudly represent themselves without feeling out of place.”
Ms Safo said that at the many events she had attended recently, discussions among black lawyers had been predominantly about inclusion.
There were questions such as ‘Will I fit in?’, ‘Do I have to change my accent?’, ‘How do I ensure I do not perpetuate the “angry black woman” stereotype whilst standing firm in my truth and needs?’ and ‘Will I always have to work twice as hard?’
She said: “These questions speak to a desire of belonging and acceptance within these predominantly white spaces at the Bar.
“It relates to the need of black and minority ethnic barristers as well as prospective barristers to simply express themselves as they are without needing to change drastically in order to be accepted.”
Ms Safo said her concern was that, with the predominant focus on diversity, the Bar was paying “less attention to inclusivity”.
Change required “‘real’ work” on diversity and inclusion, along with consideration of “what biases we hold about each other” and the root causes of bias.
“This tends to be uncomfortable as it highlights the privileges that non-BAME people have in society.”
Ms Safo said conversations on diversity and inclusion must include white people “as they predominately occupy these spaces” and failure to do so would do little to cultivate an inclusive environment.
“Invite your white colleague to a talk about racial diversity, ask a black or minority ethnic colleague about how you can get involved in promoting diversity and inclusion and create employee resource groups in your chambers. Start where you are.
“Real change starts with ‘real’ conversations with people who do not think like us or look like us, aside from mundane conversations about the weather or case law.
“Polarisation has become a trend, where people are so fiercely defensive of their positions with no intention of resolution or change in the slightest. It is futile and depleting.
“As barristers we have been trained this way and so it just becomes second nature to defend and not to back down, which is often seen as a weakness. I challenge you to do something to foster inclusion that requires courage. After all, no experience is ever wasted.”
Ms Safo said diversity did not mean that people had to “give up their seat at the table”, because research had shown that companies that were more diverse were more profitable.
“Speak to someone who doesn’t look like you or hold the same perspectives as you. Once we all have more empathy and humility in understanding one another without feeling threatened or fearful, only then will we foster real and sustainable environments of inclusion.”